Poetry is art that survives the heartbeat of its potter. From prehistoric engravings to pixelated images dancing across smartphone screens, its evolution is dynamic and fluid, creating spaces for those who are in danger of being silenced. It is in this spirit that American Sign Language (ASL) poetry has grown to an urgent and necessary form of expression, making space for artists in the Deaf community to create lasting works of literature.
Here, within the world of ASL poetry and ASL slam, poet and storyteller Douglas Ridloff has emerged as a tireless advocate, not only crafting powerful literature, but helping to nourish the artform, bringing it from his homegrown stage in New York City to stages all across the globe — and, today, broadcasting these great works to online audiences. (The next ASL Slam, by the way, is on Nov. 13, hosted on Ridloff’s Instagram. You won’t want to miss it!)
Last April, weeks into the nationwide Covid shutdown, Sampsonia Way took time to speak to Ridloff, to hear his reflections on poetry, visual storytelling, and his role in helping to foster the emergence of an ASL Slam community. Ridloff is the executive director and host of ASL Slam, founded in 2005 as a popular open mic event in New York City packed with poetry, storytelling, and improvised games. Their motto is: We provide a safe space for Sign Language community to play with our language. In recent years ASL Slam has broadened its reach as Ridloff and other Deaf performers have brought their events across United Sates and overseas.
While sign language poetry has most likely existed for as long as sign language has, its origins are often pinned at the turn of the 20th century, when ASL users would translate preexisting written literature into sign. Today’s modern movement of ASL poetry has blossomed, existing beyond the act of English interpretation and into a category in and of itself, which Deaf poet Clayton Valli refers to as a “poetics of visual language.”
And, yes, while sign language poetry may be another form and expression of poetry, it presents something deeper too. Something that simply can’t be garnered from the written word. It possesses a blossoming of emotion, creativity, and insight that explodes into stanzas of spatial art. It’s a form that can be described as vibrant and full of motion both literally and metaphorically, incorporating the use of body movement, facial expressions, repetition of hand shapes, and even community.
Considering the oppressive history of oralism — in which many in the American Deaf community were once forbidden from speaking their language and forced to cater to a hearing, speaking world — the rise of ASL poetry and ASL slam is doubly beautiful. For Deaf poets, the craft of ASL poetry provides a both joyful counter-narrative to this oppressive history and a much-needed platform for expression.
It’s in this forward-looking manifestation of community and this celebration of this once-outlawed language, where ASL Slam continues to forge its path into a bright future. Today, due to the novel coronavirus, the stage events of ASL Slam have found a new home online, as they continue to host monthly Slams over Instagram.
Q & A with Douglas Ridloff
How and why did you get into poetry slam?
I was born and raised, always interested in theater and performing. But it wasn’t until high school [that I became interested in poetry]. I first saw this man who gave a poetry and storytelling workshop. … That was the first time I’d seen that. And I was stunned by it. I was like, “wow!” and was immediately drawn into that the first time I saw it.
That continued through high school. And then when I went to college, I stopped. And just a group of two or three friends with whom we would riff a little. We did little comic storytelling and visual storytelling for comedic values for ourselves. And that was it until I graduated from college and went to grad school. And again, during grad school, I didn’t do any poetry at that time either.
It was maybe when I was 28 years old, just a few years after college that one of my friends asked me to perform. He told my former girlfriend — and now wife — that I had good signing and asked if I would participate. And I said, you know, I was too embarrassed. I was very shy. At that time, I was unwilling to step to the stage at that point because I was too shy about it. It was something I shared just intimately with my friends in terms of that expression. But then finally I gave in and signed a poem and some storytelling. And my then-girlfriend — my now wife — told me: “It’s like you need to get on stage.”
At that time, ASL Slam was under a different name. It was called A-S-L-A-N. ASLAN storytelling. And it was hosted by Bob Coleman at the Bowery poetry cafe. He had helped found it back in 2005. And he had encouraged me to come to the stage. So I got on stage there first just for three or four minutes, and then I stepped back into the audience. I would always stand all the way in the back, near the bar to chat with friends, and sort of casually watch the performance. But then they kept begging me and kept trying to pull me onto the stage to get me up there. And over time, after a couple of years, I started to go to the stage more and more, and step up there and get more comfortable. And then it became a home for me in a place where I felt like I could express myself.
So then after another few years, my friend who usually hosted moved away, and he wanted me to take over for him. And that’s when the name changed to ASL Slam. We changed the name, and we changed the format at that time. Up until that point, it had been very much the same as the idea they do for hearing poetry slams, very much as a borrowed idea from poetry slam. We added in more additional activities: improv like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — that kind of thing, and other concepts to diversify the content and to get more ASL-related activities occurring on stage for the Deaf audience. So, those were some of the changes that occurred. And it was a hit. It just continued to grow. … And now it’s been going for 15 years. 15 years of ASL Slam. So there you go.
As you developed your stagecraft, what were things that people told you or that you saw that really helped you to adapt and change your perspective about poetry and Slam?
Yeah, so for me, [it was] my own personal experience: I had stage fright. When I started, I was shy and had a little bit of the nerves and the anxiety about what people would think about my poetry and my self expression. And then two things happened: One was that I realized that this space was a space where I have free therapy. So I didn’t have to go to therapy … I could come to the stage and have it for free. Express myself there. That was something I realized over time that helped me develop a comfort with it.
And then, previously, I also had this perspective that everything must be perfect before I would step to the stage. And I changed from that to a perspective of needing to have fun to just enjoy myself. To go out there and just play ball. You know, like you go out to play basketball just to have fun? and you get better at it as you play it, right? And same with anything like that. So that was a point. I had to go out there and have fun and play with it. And that would help me develop my skills.
And then also, I began to learn from the audience as well. I learned a lot just from watching the audience’s responses and reactions and studying what they were doing and how they respond to my performances. … Some of them they’d like or they wouldn’t like. And that would help me to modify what we were doing to improve the game to make them better. And some of the ideas were given to me by the audience. And that helped me to test them out in the games and the activities. So, we would just accept those gifts from the audience. And the more we went on with the years of this, the more games we built into our repertoire for improv and so on.
But same thing with me as a poet, I saw that I was able to build my poetry and my technique. Like, moving into slow motion or going faster, modifying the rhythm and the rhyme to it, based on audience reaction, helped me to really improve my craft as well. But the point of the real perspective change that helped me the most was just knowing that I had to have fun and to just get into it and find a flow state in my mind, where I was just fully involved in it. Just get into that flow tunnel and people will be able to see us in the flow.
What is expression to you?
Expression, for me, it’s really important. It’s an expressive medium for sign poetry. If we look at the past history of how I grew up, I was repeatedly told to speak in what’s called oral education. I was forbidden from signing. I wasn’t allowed to sign at home with my hearing parents. I was told that I had to use my voice, and I had to keep improving on speech. That was a heavy focus during my upbringing. And I was deprived of my native language through that upbringing, so I didn’t have any expression in that. So, finding my own freedom of expression was something that was blocked at that time. Over time, I realized as I found my native language of expression, it led to poetry. And so the poetry was another space, that sort of freedom of speech for me. And once you have that freedom of expression, once I had that freedom in sign language, it led to so much more — led to poetry and led to storytelling. It was accessing that freedom of expression that led to those things.
Talking about oral education, there are people that do not know too much about what ASL poetry is. There are individuals that haven’t entered into this culture. Is there a way to bridge that gap? Not only as artists, but as people.
I actually gave a TEDx in Vienna that relates very much to this. For my poetry, it uses what we call a visual vernacular [that is generally] accessible to Deaf people. Then I noticed that there are a couple of mediums, that that visual vernacular is similar to music. So, I started bringing the two together: visual vernacular poetry with music. And that went really well. That was one way that we have bridged the gap, by working together with those hearing musicians. They follow my poetry, my sign language, so that we’re synchronized starting on my end. That’s been really successful. It has created a bridge to the outer community, to the hearing community out there for them to be like, “wow!” — to just see the beauty of the language and the depth of it, the richness of it, to see that it’s not just a language for communication, but that it’s an expressive art form. So that has been one of the bridges that we’ve used to connect with the outer world.
What are misconceptions that you come across as being a part of the Deaf community and how do you deal with that? And how do you also inform others?
Good question. There are very two very common misconceptions that we encounter. The first one out of the gate is that people look at American Sign Language as a system of gestures. And that’s not correct. It has its own grammar. It has its own parameters. Its five different parameters are intonation, movement, facial expression, the palm orientation, and all of those as components of the language. It has its own depth and complexity to it. That’s one misconception that we encounter repeatedly that we have to explain.
That was more in the past. Now, what we see is that more and more people think that American Sign Language is a universal language that people use the same language no matter where they’re from in the world, but that’s a misconception as well. Each country has its own sign language, so for example, in England, they have their own sign language. Now, ironically, we speak and write the same language as the English, right? But British Sign Language is different from American Sign Language. BSL and American Sign Language aren’t compatible. There’s also the Language of Signs of France, LSF. And there are different sign languages in every country around the world. A lot of people are shocked to learn that that’s the case. One of the goals of ASL Slam is to show the world that ASL is not just used for communication, but it has all this variety to it as a medium. We do that through poetry and storytelling, through the visual vernacular, through comedy, music or synchronizing with music. And we work through all the different genres of expression in order to get all those parts together in one place to show all the depth and richness of it backwards-forwards, front-and-back. Sign language poetry is spatial. It’s not linear. It uses the three dimensional space.
Since you talked about storytelling and how that was also an entrance into the poetry scene — what’s your favorite story?
All right, that’s a good question to think about. So, in terms of hearing produced stories, I’ve been most drawn to the story of Moses in Egypt – how their land was colonized and how they fought back. I was really drawn into that story in the Bible. I translated that into a visual sign language from the Torah, [you can see] the beard, and you can see him walking with the staff. I really love that story, so I took that and translated it into sign language. Moses is a story that has been loaned or taken from hearing stories and put into sign language.
As for original ASL stories, I like “Birds of a Feather” by Ben Bahan. It’s about a star that has this metaphor and message hidden within it. A group of birds – they visually describe their beaks and their little cliques – and they have this egg that comes into their family. The baby bird that hatches out of it has a different beak than the other bird in the nest and stands out from the rest of the family. It is a representation of a metaphor for the Deaf person who grows up in the hearing family. So, maybe all the rest of the family speaks and they are constantly trying to conform to that. But because they have a different beak, they have to eat different food. Right? Maybe they have to eat fruit instead of seeds or beans like the rest of the family. So, they’re constantly trying to fit in, to join in and to conform to that greater “society” of their family. I always think of that story as It’s a great story for the community.
What do you think is your proudest moment or biggest accomplishment related to ASL Slam?
When we began there were often 15 people in the audience… Now, we have 150 people in the audience, on average. And just being called to go perform in other places from… all of the Scandinavian countries to Russia, Japan, and Cuba. We have traveled around the world with slam. This growth is something that I’m proud of: the people asking us, asking me, “how we did this?” And asking how they could create a similar model in their own states. So, I’m just proud that so many people want to have the same model going on locally. The mission here is to provide a space for Deaf people to be able to play with their language in a safe space, and we’ve truly made that happen. That’s our greatest accomplishment.
Do you have any advice for signers, writers, poets, or performers in general that you would want them to leave with?
Make more art! Make more poetry! Come on! My advice would be to look at all the different mediums of art we have in movement. There’s poetry in sign language. [Although] there is some question about the ability to publish sign language, right? I would ask for the recognition of sign language [as an art form]. People have said that if sign language poetry is published, then it will gain the recognition that it deserves, and so it’s not often looked at [on] the same level as written poetry. We can make a video, but then how do we include the world that doesn’t understand that video… [and get them] to recognize it as being published. So, look at the movement as the art. The performance as movement is equal to the written word on the page. I would like to see that happen from the community at large: recognition.
Interview by Craig Hayes II • Interpretation by Phlip Wilson • Video Edits by Elizabeth Johnson • Photos by Nyle DiMarco • Special thanks to Erin Roussel for technical support.
Special thanks to All Pittsburghers are Poets, which graciously provided funding for the interpretation of this interview. In partnership with the Poetry Editors at Sampsonia Way Magazine, City of Asylum advances the mission to defend, celebrate, and build on creative freedom of expression. This project received a RADical ImPAct Grant from the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD).